Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rotten by Association

I happen to be a member of my children's elementary school board. Near the end of last year, some parents wanted to make some changes to the uniform policy. So, like any good board, we asked them to form a committee and look into it. They presented their findings to the board, and (after several meetings, several emails, and much discussion) we came up with a policy we decided to vote into active status for the 2008-2009 school year. Things went downhill fast from there.

Any of you who have ever been involved in the decision to change or implement a school uniform policy know what a volatile issue it truly is. We knew this going in, and because of that we decided to simplify the process by letting the committee and board work together to make the decisions for the rest of the constituents. Our assumption was that the committee was a representative sample of the rest of the parents and would speak for them. Wrong! What we ended up with was parents who felt they hadn't been sufficiently communicated with, regarding what they saw as critical changes and hadn't had a voice in the decision-making process, a marathon town-hall meeting that ended in hurt feelings and trampled emotions, a board who felt the entire process had been little more than an enormous distraction from what we saw as more critical issues, and the same uniform policy we began with--at least for one more year.

As I contemplated the mess we were in, it became clear to me that lessons about writing live in the most unusual places. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the process by which the board developed the uniform policy. What was tainted was our method of communication with the parents. We weren't careful enough. We weren't cautious enough with people's perception--and we all know that perception is everything! So what we have is a situation where a soundly developed, fair policy became tainted by our tainted methods of expression--resulting in the whole bunch being thrown out. The policy became rotten by association.

The same lessons apply to writing, especially for white papers or persuasive pieces. Truly, the goal of all writing is persuasion, whether it is to persuade someone to buy a product, accept an idea, or make a lifestyle change. The audience's perception of who we are, our word choice, our tone, all of these are critical factors in determining whether or not we achieve our goals.

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